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New Web site shows how global warming affects your own neighborhood

Rising temperatures in the Middle East more than 8,000 years ago directly led to the invention of money. The carbon emitted from cars and power plants in your neighborhood may be causing destructive hurricanes.

These and tens of thousands of other surprising connections are being made on a new online database called K-Web, or Knowledge-Web, to be released this month. The Web site will allow users to trace more than 30,000 connections between science, economics, events in history and the weather.

Created by science journalist James Burke, the site aims to explain, in real-world terms, the impact of melting ice caps, rising carbon dioxide levels and warming oceans. It will allow users to see the direct effect of carbon emissions on their neighborhood, schools, businesses and national economies.

Burke is no stranger to these issues. In 1990 he produced a documentary film “After the Warming” that warned that rising carbon dioxide levels around the world would cause temperatures to rise and glaciers to melt. He predicted a significant increase in drying lakes and violent storms--including a massive hurricane that would require the total evacuation of New Orleans.

At the time, his film went practically unnoticed. “This kind of science was not really known,” Burke said. “You watched programs like that only if you were a bit of a geek.”

But 20 years later, with “An Inconvenient Truth,” Al Gore’s documentary on global warming, winning an Academy Award and more celebrities and politicians speaking out about the effects of climate change, Burke is hopeful that public concern for these issues is growing. K-Web, he believes, may be able to achieve what his film could not.

“People are waking up to the fact that they can monitor things,” Burke said. “And that it is something they would want to do.”

By breaking down scientific reports into simple language, K-Web will explain social, political and cultural phenomenon as they relate to climate changes. For example, if a user looks up global temperatures around 7000 B.C., he will not only learn that they were rising at the time, he will be able to follow links showing that those temperatures allowed farmers in what is now Iraq to grow more grain. As a result, those farmers adopted a trading system of tokens to make it easier to sell their plentiful grain, leading to the world’s first recorded monetary system.

Burke said that the meaningful change needed to fight global warming won’t come from accepting the science alone, but from understanding the gray area that lies between climate change and economics and politics. He hopes K-Web will illustrate those relationships.

“Public opinion is a potent force,” he said. “I want to encourage people to go to the no man’s land.”

After thinking and talking about K-Web for more than 30 years, Burke believes the general public may finally be ready for such a database.

Laurie David, producer of “An Inconvenient Truth,” agrees. “It’s a scary thing to accept responsibility that humans are affecting the planet in this way,” she said. But in recent years the science of climate has entered popular culture, making it easier to understand relationships between rising carbon dioxide levels and daily life, she said.

”Scientists speak a certain language. Now there are regular extreme weather reports on the news," David said. "Hurricane Katrina was a huge connect-the-dot moment for a lot of people.”

The Internet makes sharing and discussing information easy, and Burke and others hope K-Web will inspire people to take action. “Everyone has a carbon footprint and everyone can reduce their carbon footprint,” said David, whose book, “Stop Global Warming: The Solution Is You!” offers tips on how individuals can reverse the global warming trend. Most people are aware of the carbon emitted from cars and planes and from the production of electricity used to power homes. But there are simple ways to reduce those emissions, David said.

Reusing water bottles and buying alternative brands of facial tissue could reduce the millions of water bottles Americans discard and save thousands of trees, she said.

A limited version of K-Web is expected to be launched this month at k-web.org. Burke expects the full version to be available in two years.

The timing, he says, is critical. Many nations have been slow to make changes. “The decision-making process is involving more people,” he said. “Individuals are taking control. It’s almost out of the hands of international politicians.”

E-mail: dh2296@columbia.edu